Boko Haram and President Jonathan’s olive branch of dialogue

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LAST week, President Goodluck Jonathan told Reuters, in an interview, that the Nigerian government would dialogue with the Islamist organization, Boko Haram, “if they clearly identify themselves now and say this is the reason we are resisting, this is the reason we are confronting government or this is the reason we destroy some innocent people and their properties…then there will be a basis for dialogue”.

President Jonathan went further, that “we will dialogue, let us know your problems but if they don’t identify themselves, who will you dialogue with?” What was significant about the offer of dialogue, was that it seemed to have become a central motif running through the government now, unlike in the recent past, when there was a tendency for leading regime officials to speak at cross purposes with each other.

Similarly, it was also reported in the Nigerian media last week, that the National Security Adviser (NSA), Owoeye Andrew Azazi, told Reuters, that government was looking at broadening efforts to end the Boko Haram insurgency, beyond pure security measures. It was thinking of “including addressing Northern economic grievances.

Even if government has a policy that there’s no negotiation, that you can’t reach out to Boko Haram, intelligence must find a way…I don’t think it’s everybody (in Boko Haram) who believes in the level of violence…That’s why you could have other channels for discussion…It’s something we could pursue”. So stripped of subterfuge, the regime in power, is extending an olive branch of peace, to the organization which Human Rights Watch said killed 500 people in 2011 and more than 250, in the first weeks of 2012.

Shooting way to victory

The new statement by President Jonathan seemed to have taken cognizance of the criticism of the purely militaristic approach, long favoured by the security apparatus of the regime. It would have clearly angered the ‘party’ of war and jackboots, as well as the media lynch mob, which has been very gung-ho about a military solution to the conflict.

But from the beginning, I have followed the lead of Borno elders and the current governor of the state, Kashim Shettima, that there was no way we could shoot our ways to a ‘victory’, in this rebellion. It seemed obvious, that there was no other way, but the path of dialogue and uprooting the injustice, which was basis for the festering of the insurgency. This point was re-emphasized by Malam AdamuCiroma in an interview he gave to THISDAY newspaper last Saturday.

“People from Borno and Sahara areas have shown to the President that Boko Haram has its origins in injustice and lack of fairness in the ways governors have handled affairs of their states…and everybody can remember what happened to the leaders of Boko Haram, how they were caught, how they were killed unjustly, and so you can see that the origins of Boko Haram is traceable to injustice”.

Injustice in the land

The theme of injustice can be found central to the ramblings of the spokesperson of the Boko Haram group too. Abu Qaga gave an interview to THE GUARDIAN newspaper of London on Friday, January 27, 2012. What I found most interesting is this quotation: “People should understand that we are not saying that we have to rule Nigeria, but we have been motivated by the stark injustice in the land…

Poor people are tired of the injustice, people are crying for saviours and they know the messiahs are Boko Haram”. It is very interesting that the current governor of Borno has from the beginning built his programme of administration on a platform of dialogue, amnesty and reconciliation as the way out of the insurgency. Unfortunately, we have not built a national consensus around issues which the Boko Haram insurgency has raised.

On the one hand, too many people around the regime in power, as well as leading commentators in the Southern media, have framed the insurgency only within the context of recent politics in the country.

The bitterness, which followed the emergence of Goodluck Jonathan as PDP candidate and subsequent election, was real enough, especially in Northern Nigeria. But to then assume, as many have done, that it was the basis of the heightening of the Boko Haram insurgency, was to over-stretch the issue. It was good for those who live a career around the politics of South versus North; it fitted frames of old prejudices while feeding deep-seated anti-Muslim or anti-Islamic reflexes.

Unfortunately, they did not help the understanding which an insurgency of such a ferocity demanded. When Southern commentators then posit that the Northern elite was somehow, manipulating Boko Haram for a political agenda, they miss the point about the paralysis of that elite, and its real fear about the insurgency.

The Northern governors that supervised the demolition of Boko Haram mosques and residences in 2009, often with television crews in tow, wanted to send a message of toughness, in line with the instruction issued by the late President UmaruYar’Adua to destroy Boko Haram.

They had also hoped that they would destroy the resistance which the tendency represented to their misrule of their societies. They calculated that everybody was going to retreat in the wake of such an overwhelming display of state brutality, so they can resume the ‘business as usual’ regime of looting; buying off dissent and playing groups against each other.

Fundamental change in Northern Nigeria

But a very fundamental change has been taking hold in Northern Nigerian society; this was not discernable for the various strands of our elite. The population had become very young, as we keep reminding on this page; seventy percent of the population is under the age of thirty. In the past three decades, the appeal to go to school caught on, despite its uneven appeal. The consequence, in a globalised world, has been the radicalisation, which gave rise to Boko Haram.

The traditional Malamaibecame increasingly a part of the corrupt status quo, which has alienated the mass of the population of the young. They collect presents of jeeps and money while preaching acceptance of the unjust status quo. The younger Malams, like Muhammed Yusuf, understood much more poignantly the feelings of the younger people who make up their audience; belong to the same community of experience of the suffering associated with an uncaring society that SAP and neoliberal capitalism has wrought in the country.

In Northern Nigeria, grievance and organisation of resistance to the state could only have been framed within the context of Islam, given the history of the region. Here we have Borno’s over 1000-year history as a Muslim state and the radical tradition which came out of the Jihad of Sheikh Usmanu Dan Fodio. To compound the situation, the Northeast part of Nigeria, also suffers the worst indices of underdevelopment in our country!

The rise of Boko Haram

This was the combustible mix that conditioned the rise of the Boko Haram insurgency. Of course, the extra-judicial killing of its leaders and members, was like pouring gasoline on raging fire! Unfortunately, the partisan political position of the regime blinded the Jonathan administration, for so long. It chose to deploy troops in Borno, and these troops have been trailed by the controversy of looting, rapes and extra-judicial killings.

Unwittingly or otherwise, they became recruiting sergeants for Boko Haram and a time came, when people in Borno feared the military much more than they did Boko Haram. If the state lost the battle for the hearts and minds of its people, then it hardly ever could win a counter-insurgency war. This is the situation the Nigerian state is dealing with, as it battles the Boko Haram insurgency. It is also what explains why young people will jubilate when security men suffered reverses while battling Boko Haram in some parts of Kano!

But I still think it was a very good decision that President Jonathan has taken, to find an avenue to dialogue with Boko Haram. As the most powerful imperialist nation in history, the USA, found out in Afghanistan, there can never be ‘victory’ in a war with an adversary ideologically driven, as the Taliban.

So after deploying the most sophisticated weapons of war, with thousands of killed and injured, even the Americans have re-discovered the wisdom of dialogue.

They want to cut their losses to be able to leave Afghanistan. The Nigerian state is a much weaker state, rolled over by corruption and deep-seated incompetence. It cannot afford to continue to waste resources needed for development, fighting an unproductive counter-insurgency that is headed nowhere!

It is a courageous decision to arrive on the shores of realism and acceptance of dialogue as the route to finding a solution to the Boko Haram insurgency. The context was different and the reasons are not the same, but the Nigerian state found a solution in the Niger Delta; it should also follow the route of dialogue with Boko Haram.

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